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Read this before volunteering abroad this summer

As the cold city becomes slightly warmer, thoughts of the up-and-coming summer fill our minds. What are you going to do? Visit family? Go on a trip with your friends? What about volunteering? We have all heard the stories of fellow students traveling abroad to beautiful countries and helping the community along the way. Such an enriching experience that so happens to look great on a resume. Well, as noble as volunteering may sound on paper you should think twice before booking your trip. 

While the thought behind helping vulnerable populations is an admirable one, “voluntourism” remains at the core a business centered around customer satisfaction. These trips prioritize the creation of a fulfilling experience for the volunteers rather than the advertised help given to the communities. While volunteering during your break might seem like the perfect opportunity to do some good and immerse yourself in different cultures, there may be more hidden beneath the surface. 

The type of volunteer work done on these trips can be split into four different focuses: conservation, education, healthcare, and infrastructure.


Realities of Voluntourism


What exactly is voluntourism?

A combined word of volunteering and tourism, the term refers to short-term volunteering trips that center the fulfillment of the volunteers rather than aiding a community. More often than not these trips cause more harm than good. As Volunteering companies function off the economic and social disadvantages of the locals, in many cases their well-being is not their main objective, and profit from sustaining systemic structures that prevent countries from developing.

In the case of infrastructure, it consists of projects which, for the most part, are incredibly inefficient as the skilled members of the community have to monitor every inch of the build, redo it, or scrap the project once the volunteers are gone.

Dork Silong is a Cambodian educator who grew up near NGOs and wound up working for one, he is well known for speaking up about the issues with the volunteering system and the organizations that bring them in. Calling these building programs “ridiculous”, he claims there is no shortage of individuals who can build desired infrastructures skillfully and will rebuild the volunteer work after they are gone. While this cycle may seem illogical, Silong outlines why it takes place, “there is only one reason that families accept volunteers coming to build a house for them, and that is that volunteers bring money with them, and money equals power. If you have money you can do whatever you want, no-one will dare to say no to you” (Silong, 2019). Silong’s conclusion underlines the money-driven volunteers who disregard the negative effects of their summer on the community simply for self-fulfillment. 

"When volunteer tourists inappropriately take on roles of ‘expert’ or ‘teacher’regardless of their experience or qualifications, this can be seen to represent theneo-colonial construction of the westerner as racially and culturally superior."

Despite having the best intentions, I doubt I'd be able to build something sturdy enough to withstand a butterfly flapping its wings nearby. With this in mind, why do we expect unqualified university students to undertake heavy manual work in foreign countries? If you aren’t qualified to do the work in your home country, you really shouldn’t be doing it in a developing country either.

Orphanage volunteering is one of the most popular sectors and the most dangerous one. As a student whose time, resources, and expertise are limited, working with children poses a lot of risks. An imperative part of the psychological development of children is stability, a high volume of people who come and go fosters unhealthy attachments and insecurity. Studies show that short-term volunteering with children damages their development and emotional well-being. As children are encouraged to create short attachments repeatedly, this leads to an inability to form healthy relationships and a sense of worth. Voluntourism fosters children to create connections and breaks them in disruptive ways. 

This article was not written to undermine volunteers, far from it. The article seeks to unmask the unethical practices of voluntarism which prey on the kind-hearted individuals who seek to help. In hopes of redirecting and informing students on ethical ways to conduct their efforts. Volunteering at its core is an example of true compassionate acts of solidarity that the world is in need of. Nonetheless, through the boom of voluntourism, the latter has become about customer satisfaction rather than the long-lasting well-being of the communities themselves.

How to Volunteer Ethically

 If you do want to volunteer this summer, these are some things to think about in order to cause your desired impact.

1. When choosing your volunteering activity: Know your limitations

Sign up for projects in which you have the required skills, such as a cause to involve your studies! Find opportunities where you can make an educated positive impact. Better yet, projects which require no qualifications. Keep in mind that working with vulnerable populations often requires professional qualifications, time, and sensitivities some volunteering agencies disregard, further damaging the community. Therefore, stay accountable and know which positions you are qualified for inside the field you’re interested in. 


2. Sustainability and community involvement

The next crucial thing to look out for is sustainability, this entails various aspects such as community involvement, longevity, responsibility, and necessity.

These projects should avidly involve the community and empower self-reliance. In doing so, breaking a cycle of dependence as the project can be continued and replicated after your departure. In terms of longevity, some projects require a longer commitment to ensure your stay is doing more good than harm, as is working with children. Beware, some volunteer work may be displacing local jobs, harming the local livelihood and the economy. At the end of the day, every project's needs and requirements are different, it is your responsibility to make sure you're aiding the community and not taking away.

Voluntourism can be a rewarding experience, which becomes harmful when the benefits of the volunteer outweigh the benefits of the community they're helping. The key is critical thinking and research. Educate yourself on the communities, on the dangers of voluntourism, and find ways to help your local community. Let’s leave the teaching and building to the professionals and question the reasons behind our actions. As prospective volunteers who seeks to make a difference, it is our responsibility to make sure we are making a positive impact and not steering into a marketing scheme profiting on others' needs.

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